It’s easy to capsulize Kevin Costner’s film career as being a collection of sports movies about baseball, golf, football and, now, cross country with “McFarland, USA.” Such a superficial examination would miss the true essence of the films.
“Bull Durham” is about relationship struggles, while “Field of Dreams” is about the importance of family. Even the NFL-heavy “Draft Day” was more about a man finding himself than a starting quarterback.
“McFarland, USA” continues to use sports as a mirror to life. On the surface, it is the phenomenal tale of coach Jim White (Costner) who turned the McFarland cross country team into a powerhouse. That’s a good story, but it doesn’t become great until you examine the deeper human elements.
The real strength comes from the film’s deep look at the beauty of diverse cultures and the importance of family and following a dream. Then “McFarland, USA” becomes a story of the determination, devotion and desire of seven young men to rise above the back-breaking lives of field hands and the man who helps them accomplish what always seemed like a pipe dream.
White is a coach whose career is slowly circling the drain. The only job he can get is in McFarland, a small California town where the majority of the citizens — young and old — work as pickers in the fields. White notices the speed of some of the young men and puts together a cross country team.
This is where the movie leaves the well worn path of standard sports movies and rushes headlong into a heart-warming and heartbreaking look at the power of the human spirit. The script by Christopher Cleveland, Bettina Gilois and Grant Thompson embraces the natural power that comes when young people are shown how much better it is to run toward something than away from things.
Costner’s the perfect choice to play the kind of “everyman” who would tackle what appears to be an impossible job. At the same time, he’s just as convincing as a father who’s struggling to take care of his family despite all of the misfires in his life.
Director Niki Caro works throughout the filming to make the production as realistic as possible. That includes casting generally unknowns to play the young athletes whose natural athleticism makes all of the competition sequences seem real. Caro manages to get a very natural performance from her novice performers.
Caro then plays this out against a backdrop that shows both the beauty and starkness of the Central Valley. She doesn’t completely capture the soul-sucking heat, but that’s a small flaw in what overall is a beautifully painted portrait of the loneliness of the long-distance runner.
The real story of the McFarland athletes is impressive and Caro manages to get across the sports elements. She does this without getting away from the production’s key strength — family.
Caro passionately reflects the lives of the athletes, but she isn’t as on target reflecting White’s home life. Maria Bello gets the most out of the limited time she is on screen. But for a movie about family, White’s home life barely gets out of the starting blocks.
Even the best runners occasionally stumble. It’s the finish that truly matters. Overall, “McFarland, USA” finds the perfect pacing of the strength of family and the power of hope against a sports backdrop.